"In my life I have never been afraid of anything," Zuma told the crowd on Monday.

"Those who know me will know that I am not a coward. I have never been afraid of anything ... I was willing to die for this country and I am prepared to die for it."

ANC members, as well as supporters from powerful trade union ally Cosatu and the Communist party, were among those protesting Zuma's innocence and demanding that the charges be dropped.

A vigil outside the court was staged by hundreds of supporters overnight before Zuma's appearance at the court in Pietermaritzburg.

Singing and dancing

After leaving the court, Zuma danced and led the crowd in singing the anti-apartheid song Awulethe Umshini Wami (Bring Me My Machine Gun).

Supporters, including some dressed in military fatigues, had spent the day dancing and singing while denouncing the charges against Zuma as a political vendetta.

Zuma has sought to have the case against him thrown out, making it likely the long-awaited trial will be further delayed.

Kemp J Kemp, Zuma's lawyer, said during the hearing that the case should be dismissed as prosecutors did not follow constitutional rules when deciding to charge Zuma.

It is the second time the state has attempted to prosecute Zuma for corruption. A judge struck down the last prosecution bid in 2006, declaring that case against the populist leader a disaster.

Jessie Duarte, an ANC spokesperson said Zuma was "being persecuted more than prosecuted".

Lindo Khumalo, 25, a supporter from Pietermaritzburg wielding a fake machine gun, said "even if he is in jail, we will vote for him".

Charges

Zuma, seeking to become South Africa's third black president in elections next year, is facing a total of 16 charges as a result of a seven-year investigation.

Supporters chanted: "Who told you that Zuma is guilty?" [AFP]
The main charge against him is that he allegedly received bribes for protecting French arms company Thint in an investigation into an arms deal.

Zuma had been accused of soliciting a bribe of 500,000 rand ($43,500) annually from the company.

The ANC leader was cleared of rape in May 2006 after a trial in which he admitted having sex with an HIV-positive family friend less than half his age.

Zuma, who had headed the National Aids Council, stated that he used a shower after sex as his sole means to prevent infection.

Political case

Mbeki fired Zuma as South Africa's deputy president in 2005 after he was implicated in a corruption case involving Schabir Shaik, his former financial adviser, who was jailed for 15 years.

Zuma's supporters say the case has been encouraged by Mbeki loyalists aimed at derailing chances of becoming president.

"Throughout the investigation and prosecution of this case the ANC president has had his rights repeatedly violated by institutions of state," the ANC said in a statement.

The ANC Youth League called on Mbeki on Sunday to step down as president to allow for an early election.

The National Prosecuting Authority charged Zuma with corruption for a second time shortly after he took over the helm of the ANC after the earlier charges were dismissed due to technical reasons.

On Thursday, his hopes of having the case thrown out were dealt a blow by the Constitutional Court which upheld a ruling by the Supreme Court of Appeals that raids on properties belonging to Zuma and his lawyer were valid and thousands of documents seized could be used against him in a trial.

A protracted trial could overlap with general elections scheduled for 2009.